STAR WARS episode VII The FORCE Awakens – – a review

14 05 2016

 

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For the most part it works and, generally, it is really very good.
Co-writer and director J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy have, with an exceptionally talented cast and crew, successfully caught the high spirits, the hip modern day humor, the heightened – – almost-operatic – – drama and the kinetic dynamism of the original STAR WARS trilogy (1977-1983) while bending its basics so that it takes flight into the twenty-first century. Abrams proved himself well disposed to this challenge with his exceptional pair of STAR TREK features in which he accomplished the seemingly impossible of re-casting iconic characters, largely created by the original actors themselves, with fresh, little known performers who caught the essences of those icons within a re-imagined universe that necessarily held to certain established precepts and ideas, and made those characters real and natural again, down to Earth as it were.
Episode VII adheres more strictly to an imposed sense of continuity, taking place thirty-two years after the dramatic events of 1983’s RETURN OF THE JEDI which seemingly depicted the defeat and overthrow of the tyrannical galactic Empire by the tenacious Rebel Alliance and its unique, disparate collection of heroes in, what was in retrospect, a satisfying “happy ending.” But as with his TREKs (and, indeed, his successes on television), Abrams gets his new heroes and his mixed up, troubled villain (and as importantly the actors playing them) just right – – fun, engaging, archetypal warriors of varying experience, different in their significant details from Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo (or Anakin, Padme, and Obi Wan for that matter) but cut very much from the same creative cloth.
John Boyega, very likable as an oddball blend of comic relief and a soul in search of a sense of self to be true to, is a stormtrooper who takes on the resonant name Finn when he decisively jumps ship after witnessing, and avoiding as best he can, too much cruelty from the sadistic, tyrannical First Order which seems to have grown from the ashes of the fallen Empire. (One of the film’s fairly significant failings is its murky politics; the original trilogy offered several levels of interpretation in this regard but was ultimately very clear in how aggressive, active individuals take on the machine that is “the system” while the prequels were very much explicitly about politics; they were political films and likewise arresting and clear in following how corruption and desire can transform a democracy into that aforementioned machine, reflected in the willing fall of a flawed hero desperate for power. Why VII’s New Republic has no military and instead “allows”a Resistance to fight the First Order, an organization whose existence is given no detail in its history, is frustrating and confusing. In the original STAR WARS, a passing reference to an Emperor and the dissolution of the Senate spoke volumes in comparison to VII’s much too blunt contextual assumptions. )

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Finn helps a captured Resistance daredevil fighter pilot and secret agent, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, brilliant in the Coen’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) escape the First Order’s clutches after capture while on a mission for none other than General, formerly Princess, Leia Organa. Although her screen time is essentially that of an important cameo, Leia’s at the center of the movie’s most personal and meaningful conflict and suggests greater things in the stories to come. Seeing Carrie Fisher take the strong, lively tireless girl of level-headed privilege into sober middle-age is more than a nostalgic treat; she gives a genuinely good, purposeful performance – – still an indomitable leader but driven less by idealism now than a sense of loss and loneliness. Finn ultimately assumes Poe’s duty, for a stretch that supports the bulk of the plot (as with all the STAR WARS series, VII is packed with story amidst the non-stop action but, by the end, one feels more satisfied by elements other than plot) and involves Poe’s spunky droid, BB8 (if C-3PO is an effete butler, and R2-D2 both a blue collar handyrobot-of-all-trades and ace IT what’s-it, BB8 is a winning, unstoppable cheerleader) and the missing piece of a galactic map leading to the location of the now-legendary last Jedi Knight, Luke Skywalker. Mark Hamill’s appearance is unsurprisingly brief but carries both a sense of emotional resolve and a portent of challenges to come for this entire new band of warriors, most notably a lost and lonesome scavenger girl who becomes aware of personal strengths and potentially dangerous weaknesses.

Every once and a while we’re lucky as film goers to witness the birth of either a genuine new on-screen talent or an honest-to-god movie star and, if we’re really lucky, both in the same package. Time and future performances will tell when it comes to Daisy Ridley who portrays Rey, the solitary scrounger and survivor on the desolate planet Jakku, clearly the location of a great Imperial battle loss, but her performance in THE FORCE AWAKENS has a depth and dimensionality that far surpasses even the scripting of Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan and she provides the film’s emotional and forward-driving energy. She’s also a clever synthesis of the original trilogy’s heroic triumvirate, blending Luke’s sensitivity to the mystical and hints of a pre-destined greatness (the mystery of which clearly makes Rey the protagonist of this trilogy), Princess Leia’s confident feminine boldness in a galaxy under the control of mostly male soldiers and power brokers, and Han Solo’s “everyman” (or, in Rey’s case, “everywoman”) self-sufficiency and, on display in one of the movie’s best paced and delivered effects-driven action sequences aboard a familiar old flying “piece of garbage,” a natural at the controls of an intergalactic hot rod.

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Miss Ridley’s sunlight-bright performer’s talent is, matched by her more ineffable actorly skill-set; she holds her own and stands tall opposite the redoubtable Harrison Ford as Han Solo,with Rey earning both the smuggler-pilot’s (and Ford’s toward Ridley, I suspect) hard-won respect and a fatherly fondness – – which strikes a genuine heartfelt chord through the family-centric conflict and confrontation during the story’s emotional and action-packed climax. And if Daisey Ridley’s Rey is this Episode’s emotional and narrative force, Ford is its soul. He stows away what’s become his go-to screen persona of the gruff leader under siege and replaces it with a familiar knowing crooked grin and a smart-ass, half-cynical light in his eyes ; from his guy’s guy desperate faith in his hurtling Millennium Falcon (like SITH’s shot of a familiar spacecraft corridor, the Falcon’s first appearance here is a rare instance of what’s basically art direction getting a rousing audience response), to his shady miscalculated makeshift business deals as the galaxy’s best known smuggler, his gruffness shows through only when others doubt his leadership and command choices – – notably two sassy dames this time as well as a tiny female alien who brings to mind Linda Hunt’s wise saloon keeper in screenwriter Kasdan’s third directorial outing, 1985’s SILVERADO, and one chartiable Wookiee sidekick . Ford’s return to Han Solo reminds us how fun and smart he helped make the original trilogy.

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But like Fisher’s Leia, with whom Han Solo is deeply, intimately entwined, the intervening, unseen thirty years involved wrenching STAR WARS-historical unsettled complications, and Ford’s Solo has similarly retreated from his own loss by trying to live up to a reputation as a mercenary adventurer (Fisher and Ford’s exchanges in this regard allow them to well play enduring feelings and though depicted in broad strokes akin to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, their shared storyline is basically about falling in love again; personally, I’d have enjoyed an Episode VII that would have put them front and center in a space fantasy variation of the Sean Connery-Audrey Hepburn rediscovery of after-middle aged affection, ROBIN AND MARIAN.)

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In terms of my problems with the film, they aren’t, primarily, the nitpickery of a STAR WARS die hard of my notable repute. I’m still not certain why I didn’t go ape – – make that Wookiee – – over it on my first viewing but for reasons, again that have just the slightest tinge of nostalgia (Williams’ love theme for Han Solo and the Princess will always slay me when those two actors/characters share romantic sidelongs), my subsequent viewings found it genuinely, in and of itself , compelling, emotionally strong, well-told as a story and, in some of its action and effects sequences, a real thrill (the Falcon’s first flight with Rey at the controls and Finn working the guns in a chase-and-fire escape from First Order TIE fighters through the great beached and broken hull of a star destroyer; Finn learning desperately the wield of a lightsaber in combat against a stormtrooper armed with surprising defenses; Poe Dameron leading a flight of X-wing fighters to a nick of time rescue, skimming over a lake; Rey confronting the film’s main villain, in a fairy tale’s snowy wood, with Luke Skywalker’s lost light saber as the planet is destroyed). As with STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, still director Abrams’ best filmmaking, in my opinion despite his own recently expressed qualms about its story-telling, I admired and enjoyed the film on first screening and later found the uniqueness of his work; he’s got a good eye for image-making and his themes are simple, basic, in terms of friendship as family and the need for an individual to make a stand for what they believe is best and right (that was his LOST pilot in a nutshell) and while he may lack young Lucas’ and Spielberg’s innate abilities to synthesize style and ideas into pure cinema, he has the distinct strength of re-inventing myths in ways both more seriously than they’ve been explored before and with greater sense of self-aware comedy.

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The Force Awakens (a lackluster title) has received largely, nearly overwhelming, positive response, though the critical writing has largely taken on a predictable sense of group think. The movie is not , as one critic whose writing I normally respect claimed, practically a shot-for-shot remake of the 1977 original; I barely saw the resemblance beyond a few basics (and early in my own writing and filmmaking, I sat down with a watch, a pen and paper and studied the original film, admittedly still my favorite movie – – ever, and mapped it out “beat-by-beat” to figure out why and how it worked so well; The Force Awakens works but for notably different cinematic and story choices). And the fact is all six of the previous films involved intentional, sometimes artful, repetitions, echoes and reflections, particularly between the two extant trilogies, and Lucas originally created a certain milieu within which to make that happen, one which took place on different planets each with a predominant environment and involved doomsday machines, distressing damsels (Carrie Fisher’s expression), strange animals, aliens and robots that speak convincing if nonsensical languages, doomed Samurai cowboys acting as intergalactic peacekeepers, and the Skywalker clan rightly comparable in many ways to Coppola’s Corleone Family, only in outer space. Which raises the other, more literate, equally incorrect popular negative response: that the original film’s brilliance was, in part, owed to Lucas’ conscious and subconscious influences from the ancient heroic Myths to the modern mythology of movies – – from Kurosawa to Flash Gordon by way of John Ford, CAPTAIN BLOOD, THE DAM BUSTERS, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and THE WIZARD OF OZ (even while making AMERICAN GRAFFITI, Lucas described his next one as being a cross between “2001 and James Bond”) – – TV of the era (‘60s STAR TREK’s tractor beams and photon/proton torpedoes), comic strips and pulp sci-fi, and the literary fantasy epics, “The Lord of the Rings” and “Dune,” and turned it into his own thing, entirely derivative but wholly original, while the only thing The Force Awakens draws on is STAR WARS itself. This is is accurate but misses the point.

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STAR WARS has been around now longer than the time elapsed between Lucas’s original and many of his presumed influences; there were only some twenty years between it and, say, THE SEARCHERS or THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, and it bears the weight of its own mythos to the degree that young Rey and Finn speak for a growing audience for whom Luke Skywalker’s adventures are part of an old legend and Han Solo’s role in those fantastic stories about a magical “Force” range from daring smuggler to Rebel General and even “War Hero,” depending on one’s own point of view. This is the central smart pleasure of Abrams’ Episode VII; whether its legend, history or an old movie, the characters and the audience share the adventure to discover some version of the truth to make into their own. This is epitomized in the strongly effective image of the villain of the piece, Kylo Ren (a turbulent, unforgiving and mysterious performance from Adam Driver; another of my problems with the movie, if it were as self-contained as Abrams claimed prior to release, in the manner of Lucas’ original, Kylo Ren’s storyline, as it intertwines with Han Solo, Leia, Luke and Rey should have been the film’s spine and achieved an even more definitive resolution). Kylo Ren seeks counsel and communes with the Dark Side via the metaphorical ghost of a distant relative he never met and means to make that forbearer’s unfinished work complete. Sure of himself once again, Kylo Ren sweeps across frame and reveals the melted metallic visage of…..

 

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. – –  written by  Jai Dixit  (also creator of accompanying digital paintings)

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14 05 2016
STAR WARS episode VII The FORCE Awakens – – a review | The Damnedest Thing You Ever Saw

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